Milk, Bread, Wine?

Wine bill passes House, would move to local vote
Stephanie Myers-News-Herald
After multiple attempts, the state House of Representatives voted by a wide margin Thursday morning to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets.

But the bill may come with tension in Lenoir City.

If signed into law by the governor, the bill will allow cities and counties that currently allow package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold outside liquor stores. Both Lenoir City and the city of Loudon would have the option.

The county passed a referendum on package stores in November 2008, according to the Loudon County Election Commission. Though liquor-by-the-drink has been allowed in Lenoir City since 2003, residents have voted down package stores several times since the 1970s, including in 2008, Lenoir City Councilman Harry Wampler said.

"It would probably be a close vote," Wampler said, adding that many churches in the area voiced their opinion against package stores and liquor-by-the-drink in the past. "And when you look at the makeup of our community and all, we are a rather strong religious community, considering we are stronger than a lot of communities would be, and we have a lot of Baptist churches which would probably not be in favor of it.

"Looking from that standpoint, it would probably be a close vote, but every time it's been voted on it gets to be a closer vote, you follow me?" he added. "Even the one that passed was a close vote and the last time that failed it was a close vote. It gets closer each time. The people should have the right to vote if they want to vote on it. That's where I would stand is give them the right to exercise their vote."

Councilman Eddie Simpson said should residents bring a petition to city council, he would also vote in favor of putting the measure on the ballot.

"If the people sign that petition then that's their wish and they want it on the ballot then I think council would agree to put it on there," Simpson said. "What the people want, that's what I'll go with."

Councilman Bobby Johnson Sr., said while he does not approve of package stores, he thinks wine in grocery stores would prove beneficial for tax revenue.

"They are going to get it either way. Why don't we bring the tax dollars here for us?" Johnson said. "Although it would bring tax revenue, I wouldn't be for the liquor store at all. ... I just don't think it is a good thing around here because we have a lot of people who drink a lot. That would be easy access to it."

Local votes can take place as early as the fall, but would not allow supermarket wine sales until July 2016 so that liquor stores could make capital changes. Only grocery stores where 20 percent of their sales are derived from taxable food income will be allowed to sell wine.

Rep. Ryan A. Haynes, R-Knoxville, who co-sponsored this year's bill, said he opposed it in past years. Haynes said he believed the bill passed Thursday because of new amendments, including legislation that is aimed to make it tougher to sell alcohol to minors.

"But ultimately I think the most important thing is it allows our citizens to decide for themselves," Haynes said before Thursday's vote.

"I recognize that my citizens are strongly in favor of this legislation, probably on this issue more than any other issue. I get calls asking me to vote for it, so I want to make sure I represent not just what I think is good public policy but what my citizens want," Haynes said. "... Quite frankly, I wish individuals would put as much energy into education and worry about infrastructure and spending ... that they put into this legislation. I think the state would be a lot better off if citizens focused their efforts with the same intensity that they did with this bill."

Vote likely to fail
Scott Beatty, manager of The Grove Wine and Spirits in downtown Loudon, said he hopes, and believes, residents will turn down the referendum.

"If they are looking to drink good wines and things like that we have a wonderful selection and we will be competitive," Beatty said. "Our price will be cheaper than the grocery stores, so we're looking to be very combative about it, you know, or being able to be very competitive in the pricing and customer service and community involvement."

Customers come from "all over," he said.

"We carry most everything with what this area really needs. I don't think the people of Loudon really want to see wine in the grocery. I guarantee if the people of Loudon voted on it, it will be no," Beatty said, noting that Lenoir City's absence of stores helps business.

"There are so many churches and there are so many God-fearing people there and really, quite frankly, to be opening a store, it wouldn't do much business because of the amount of churches that are there," Beatty said. "So people would get wine for cooking not for drinking, but if they want a nice selection of red wines or white wines they come here because we have a great selection."

All about convenience
Tellico Village resident Al Porell, club member of the Smoky Mountain Chapter of the American Wine Society, welcomes the bill.

Porell hopes that one day wine will be sold in Food Lion in Tellico Village. He travels 10-25 miles to purchase wine.

"I think it will be a good service to the citizens of this state. I'm hopeful it will also increase state and local revenues because of the wine being more readily available," Porell said. "You will probably see an increase in sales as well. I believe wine is a good complement to food, and as long as it's used responsibly, I have no problems with selling wine in supermarkets."

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, passed 71-15, but there are a few minor differences compared to the Senate version. The House bill sets the licensee fee for a grocery store to sell wine at $1,250, while the Senate version calls for $850. The bill also sets a 20 percent markup on wine in grocery stores, which goes into effect July 1, 2016.

"What that was is frankly to prevent a grocery store from using liquor to get people to come in and buy more liquor," Lundberg said.

Lundberg said the Senate will take up the bill this week, where he expects a vote to approve the House version. Lundberg said he hopes the bill keeps revenue — not only wine, but grocery sales — in Tennessee.

"If you know Bristol at all, there is a street in the middle of town called State Street. Half of the town is in Tennessee and the other is in Virginia. I have seen so many people and talked to so many people who say, 'When I go do my grocery shopping, I go to the Kroger or Food City in Bristol, Va.'," Lundberg said. "And when they are doing that they are not just buying wine there. They are buying chicken, fish and everything else and we are losing money to those states. I want that for us."